The above ironic description is probably how most of us see politics. But—hang on a minute. Politics may be boring like hell to the outsiders, but not to those at the trough. Look again at the legislative floor, prompts Peter Swirski in American Utopia and Social Engineering, his recent book on American culture and American politics. Taiwanese parliamentary debates routinely end in bloody fistfights. South Korean parliamentarians brawl over new laws. Violent scuffles roll down the legislative aisles of Ukraine, Bolivia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Japan, Macedonia, Nigeria, Greece, Czech, Egypt. Even the Unites States Congress has not been a stranger to dustups and even bloodletting, showing that, far from being intrinsically boring, politics is so much like a full-contact sport that on occasion it could move from C-SPAN to pay-per-view.
The colorful paragraph which opens this review is selected from the one of Peter Swirski’s several books on American culture in general and American political culture in particular, as seen through the prism of contemporary American literature. The author is a highly respected literary scholar and specialist in American Studies who has for many years now been listed in his native Canada’s Who’s Who. The book in question, American Utopia and Social Engineering, has been praised even by the famously hard-to-please Christopher Hitchens and warmly reviewed on the pages of The Montreal Review.
American Utopia and Social Engineering itself came in the footsteps of another, even better known book by Peter Swirski called Ars Americana, Ars Politica. Published in 2010, this unique and brilliant myth-busting study of contemporary American literary and political culture took on such controversial subjects as the first black presidency in the White House, which, it may be worth noting, predates Obama by roughly half a century. It also investigated the corrupt career of Richard Slurrie (sic) Nixon, the critiques hurled at the United States Congress, aka “parliament of whores”, by the self-styled Republican Reptile, the most political political film ever to be released by a major Hollywood studio, and the “truth or dare” politics of that notorious Oscar-winning slacker Michael Moore. The book led to its author being invited to lecture at UNE’s prestigious Center for Global Humanities back to back with the other noted commentator on contemporary American politics, Noam Chomsky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efqdF1aY98o).
It is clear that investigating American letters with a view to how they reflect (some might even say prey on) the cutthroat partisan politics in Washington is a long-term project, which comprises at least five years and at least three major monographs—Peter Swirski is also the editor of a popular collection called I Sing the Body Politic: History as Prophecy in Contemporary American Literature. His principal challenge, as one might surmise from the paragraph quoted at this beginning of this review, is to change the perception of American politics as a public trough appropriated by Orwellian pigs and to make politics personal and exciting—at least as personal and exciting as watching sports or watching a good soap opera is for most people.
If this sounds like a difficult task, Peter Swirski is undaunted, as is evidenced by his latest book punningly called American Political Fictions: War on Errorism in Contemporary American Literature, Culture, and Politics. One of the many remarkable things about this literary and political study is that it does not limit itself to identifying the myths underlying contemporary American politics and filleting them with verve, wit, and humor. On the pages of what this reviewer regards as a must-read of the year, he spells out the potential solution to some of the political woes—beginning notably with political apathy—which plague the United States and many other Western democracies (Peter Swirski might put “democracies” in quotations marks).
Accompanied by a selection of transatlantic praise for the book, the back cover of American Political Fictions bears this description of its contents:
American Political Fictions rewrites the book on American political art in a myth-busting study that ranges from historical ‘faction’ and apocalyptic thrillers to satirical fiction, rap poetry, TV's The West Wing, and not least the make-believe that streams out of the White House. It critically, not to say skeptically, sieves out historical facts from a sea of partisan and bipartisan disinformation in order to forge a more accurate picture of contemporary American culture and, through it, of America itself. In the process, it elucidates the ideological underpinnings, cultural manifestations, and democratic essence of contemporary political art—and of the partisan politics on which it feeds.
The historical faction in question is Joseph Heller’s political tour de farce called Picture This. As Peter Swirski compellingly argues, this unjustly overlooked novel-as-history or alternatively history-as-novel may be Heller’s both darkest and funniest book, Catch-22 included. The apocalyptic thrillers in question are the Left Behind novels which have sold eighty millions copies in the United States, challenging the literary and political establishment to come to terms with its popularity and fundamentalist (in religious and political terms) proselytizing. In one of the funniest and wittiest parts of this consistently funny and witty book, which includes sections such as “Satan’s Cause Is Coming to Town”, Peter Swirski comes close to doing for the politics of born-again Christianity what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the politics of abolitionism.
The central chapter comes as a bit of a surprise in a book on American political fictions. Its literary subject, the 2004 novel A Planet for the President, is undoubtedly as political and satirical as one gets. But the author of A Planet for the President, the political playwright Alistair Beaton, is celebrated as the greatest living British satirist (he is actually from Scotland, which might be expedient to note given the present political situation in the British Isles). By the end of the chapter, which is value-added with personal interviews, Peter Swirski makes a persuasive case for expanding our commonly held notions of what “American” means (after doing the same for the other key terms of his book: “political” and “fiction”).
The next example of American political fictions is the rhyming American poetry of rap. American Political Fictions rescues from virtual oblivion a commercially ignored form of rap, namely rap which is political in the sense most feared in Washington. This detailed and engaging discussion of rap artists’ poetic and political “rap-sodies” has elicited the following endorsement from H. Bruce Franklin, the recognized doyen of American Studies: “Swirski’s combination of wicked wit and spectacular knowledge makes this a dangerously fun book. And his familiarity with history, music, and metrics makes the chapter on rap alone worth the price of admission”.
The final chapter of this profound yet paradoxically lighthearted book brings the preceding strands of popular culture and political culture together in what may be the best analysis of the best political drama in the history of American television to date. The discussion of the liberal and conservative elements in The West Wing paves the way for the discussion of the undemocratic elements in American-style democracy. “The people have spoken. The bastards,” is how Dick Tuck, widely popular political consultant and political prankster, reacted to being defeated in California Senate race in 1966. Peter Swirski examines the political principles behind putting democracy in the hands of Tuck’s bastards and behind leaving it in the hands of the bastards in Washington, and delivers a well-reasoned decision.
Peter Swirski is a good story teller and in American Political Fictions he has a number of good stories to tell. Some are quite original, many are quite surprising, and all are recounted with the aplomb of a journalist tempered by the research habits of a historian. What makes this entertaining book even more enjoyable are the reprints of political cartoons which help reinforce the author’s point that “the matters at hand are often too serious to be tackled without humor”.